The Connection Between Coal and Politics in Wyoming

In Wyoming, where Philip Anschutz is currently building the largest wind farm in the world, coal, which is cheap and plentiful, is the answer to just about everything.
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(Photo: Matthew Idler)

(Photo: Matthew Idler)

There is no escaping the wind in Wyoming. It moves across the high desert with brutal force. Signs straddling the interstate warn drivers of gusts of 50 miles an hour or more that can blow a car into the next lane. But make no mistake: This is coal country.

Some 40 percent of the nation’s coal is scraped from Wyoming’s mines. Almost all of that comes from the Powder River Basin, one of the world’s most productive seams of coal. The state moves nearly 400 million tons of coal a year onto rail cars to fuel power plants as far away as Canada and Texas. Revenue from the energy industry funds about half of the state budget.

For a community sitting alongside the most powerful wind resource in the continental U.S., the allegiance to coal, long after the local mines have been shuttered, is tough to fathom.

The connection between coal and politics in Wyoming is “phenomenally insidious,” says Jeff Lockwood, a professor at the University of Wyoming and author of the forthcoming book Living Behind the Carbon Curtain: The Energy Industry, Political Censorship and Free Speech. Wyoming politicians defend coal with the ferocity of a bear protecting her cubs. Increasingly, that has required staking
out lonely positions. During his campaign in 2010, Matthew Mead, Wyoming’s Republican governor, declared on his website, “I am completely unconvinced that climate change is man-made.” He’s toned down that stance slightly since taking office. Last year, speaking at a conference, he said he was “skeptical” about man’s role in climate change, adding, “I’m not a scientist. I could be wrong on this.”

Unsurprisingly, the Obama administration has been vilified for a series of regulations that have squeezed mining operations and appear likely to close down numerous coal-fired power plants. Wyoming has struck back, although sometimes its target seems more symbolic than substantive. Last year, the legislature passed an amendment that blocked the state board of education from adopting Washington’s New Generation Science Standards. The issue? The new standards taught that human-induced climate change was settled science. The ban was overturned this year.

Saratoga is a storybook town of 1,700 just outside Philip Anschutz’s Overland Trail Ranch, the planned site for his massive wind farm. Some 20 years ago, the shutdown of nearby coal mines shattered the local economy. Since then, Saratoga has gotten by on ranching and tourism. Stacy Crimmins, who runs the local chamber of commerce, tells me, “People around here just feel coal is the answer.” The answer to what, I ask? “Everything,” she says, shrugging. For a community sitting alongside the most powerful wind resource in the continental United States, the allegiance to coal, long after the local mines have been shuttered, is tough to fathom.

People have nothing against wind, Crimmins says, they’re just not convinced it’s ever going to have the kind of economic impact coal once did. And, of course, no one in Wyoming actually needs any wind-generated electricity. The vast majority of their power comes from coal, which is plentiful and cheap. Those who want wind power are hundreds of miles away, on the Pacific Coast. “There is some cynicism, of course, that it’s being shipped out to California,” explains Crimmins, quickly adding, “Not that we don’t like those people.”

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This sidebar originally appeared in the July/August 2015 print issue of Pacific Standard alongside "How a Conservative Billionaire Is Moving Heaven and Earth to Become the Biggest Alternative Energy Giant in the Country."

This story is part of our week-long special report on energy issues in California produced in collaboration with the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. For more, visit the project's landing page.

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